Learning (again) from Infrastructural Failure: Pittsburgh's Bridge Collapse

Michael R. Glass


Pittsburgh’s social media chatter began accelerating early on Friday January 28th when word spread of a bridge collapse in the city’s largest park. Overreaction, I thought, believing that a pedestrian footbridge had failed, imperiling none and inconveniencing few of Regent Square’s residents. As dawn broke the true shape of the infrastructural failure revealed itself: the bridge that had fallen was a significant route for thousands of daily commuters and a regular diversionary route for traffic when the nearby Squirrel Hill highway tunnel was shut down. Some 80 years old, the Fern Hollow bridge traversed a steep ravine in Frick Park and had recently passed an inspection despite being one of the 255 state and local bridges in the Department of Transportation’s 11th District rated in poor condition.


There were no fatalities in this bridge collapse, since the failure occurred before rush hour when the bridge is regularly backed up with commuter and school buses, private cars, and pedestrians. One nearly empty Port Authority bus and seven cars were on the bridge when it collapsed, with minor injuries sustained by the occupants. Therefore, in the grand scheme of things this infrastructural failure was minor when compared to 2007's I-35 freeway bridge disaster in Minneapolis when 13 died (LePatner, 2010), or the pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida International University in 2018 when 6 died. Nevertheless, this infrastructural disruption was a newsworthy indicator of America’s aging infrastructure, society’s reliance on taken-for-granted systems that are commonly unnoticed unless failure occurs (Graham, 2010), and the tendentious scalar politics behind infrastructural reinvestment.

In an ironic twist, President Joe Biden was set to visit Pittsburgh on the very day that the bridge collapsed, intent on promoting the recent passage of the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and touting the bridges to the future that new infrastructural investment would create. His scheduled itinerary took him some 5 miles away from the collapsed bridge to Mill 19 at the Hazelwood Green, Pittsburgh’s newest brownfield development area that will house consequential research and development activities in the robotics and biomedical sectors.

As may be expected, Biden’s team ensured that he also visited the Fern Hollow site, where he talked with emergency responders and promised Federal assistance in reconstructing the bridge. In addition to Biden, the recently elected Mayor of Pittsburgh and the County Executive were on the scene, vowing to rebuild and providing information about the varying lines of responsibility and oversight that linked this bridge to local and state politics. Bureaucratic agencies were simultaneously at work in ensuring the city adapted to the loss of the bridge: barriers were erected, plans for site clearance were developed, regulatory hurdles to rebuilding were evaluated, and re-routings for city buses and private vehicles were created.

The bridge collapse and subsequent local and national state action thus demonstrates the linkages between specific infrastructural assets and the regional politics that determine the shape of infrastructure investment and repair. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation monitors road and bridge conditions and administers an $8.6 billion budget that is estimated to be half the level necessary to maintain and improve the state’s transportation infrastructure. With limited funds to allocate across Pennsylvania, projects are approved via a set of regional intermediaries including the state’s 19 Metropolitan Planning Organizations and 4 Rural Planning Organizations, along with PennDOT and the State Transportation Commission. These decisions are thus politically fraught, and subject to the geographic and social characteristics of the different regional spaces within Pennsylvania.

From a research perspective, I see strong value in an approach that recognizes the regional scale that runs through the distributed agency and decision-making shaping infrastructural systems. Regional governing organizations such as those responsible for Pennsylvania’s transportation infrastructure determine the provisioning of roads, rail, and bridges through their attitudes toward the role and goal of infrastructure. Such ideologies are then enacted through incremental budget processes and mandated planning frameworks that shape the production or reproduction of new territorial spaces.

In other words, the disruption to one bridge in Pittsburgh is revelatory because of what it represents about the contests and negotiations inherent in the maintenance and provision of infrastructural systems, and how infrastructures that are experienced locally are much better understood regionally.

Now that over two months have passed since the bridge collapse, Pittsburgh’s residents have adjusted to the disruption. Locals have adjusted to bragging about the city’s 445 (formerly 446!) bridges, which is still more than other cities can boast of having. Bus passengers on the affected routes can now expect at least 30 minutes of extra travel time on their journey to the university precinct of Oakland. Residents on streets in adjacent Squirrel Hill where buses now detour are benefiting from the unexpected surplus of service, while motorists are now redirected onto new routes to get into Oakland or Pittsburgh’s downtown.

Meanwhile, expedited action on the part of the Federal and State governments have provided $23 million for the reconstruction of the Fern Hollow bridge. Members of the pubic have expressed chagrin at the lack of community input and imagination in the early renderings for the replacement bridge, as they show a nondescript four-lane design that privileges Modernist visions of automobility and forces cyclists and pedestrians to share a narrow strip of pavement. There is still time for change given the protests voiced about the expedited process, and yet the city’s administration is very intent on rebuilding the bridge as soon as possible: perhaps by the end of 2023 if all goes well.

The Fern Hollow Bridge collapse will not be the last infrastructural failure, nor will it likely usher in a new era of attention to maintenance of existing infrastructural assets. What it does is provide Pittsburgh residents with a brief insight into the extra-local decisions that shape the provision of taken-for-granted assets, and a chance to reflect on the complicated connections between social lives, technical systems, and political exigencies. Regional scholars must also attend to the complicated dynamics that continue to influence the reshaping of regional spaces elsewhere.


 

References

Graham, S., editor (2010) Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails. Routledge.

LePatner, B. (2010) Too Big to Fail: America's Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward. University Press of New England.